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4K Phones and Home Clouds Signal Another Capacity Crunch

Yesterday I played with tomorrow’s phones. Things like that happen as a futurist.

I went to see a company called Qualcomm, a name you may not know today but that will likely be as familiar as Intel in years to come. Qualcomm has been a key player in the mobile industry pretty much since its inception — certainly as far back as my direct experience goes (2000). Only now is it considering communicating more with the public, rather than with the Samsungs, and LGs of the world who rely on its technology.

The product I was looking at yesterday is the latest iteration of its mobile phone platform, the Snapdragon 800. In a single package this provides all of the major components you need to build a smartphone or tablet: networking, processing, video, and voice. Stick a screen, a camera, a case, a battery, ports and an aerial on it and you pretty much have a phone: everything else is software.

One thing that caught my attention yesterday was the chip’s ability to both capture and display 4K video. If you’re not familiar with 4K, it’s four times the resolution of HD. That means super-sharp, super-rich images with lots of depth too them, even without any 3D technology. 4K TVs are already on the market, albeit wallet-crushingly expensive.

The device can also capture and play back surround sound. Add amp and TV and you have a very high-end home cinema system, as was demonstrated with exclusive clips of Pacific Rim (prepared for the recent E3 show — yes, I was geeking out).

All very cool.

Stuff Drives Storage

Another meeting I had yesterday was with Richard Lee, president and CEO of QNAP Systems, a company I have written about here before. QNAP makes network attached storage (NAS) devices. These are small, efficient computers with lots of hard disk capacity designed to be a repository for all your digital goodies: music, photos, videos, documents etc.

Richard is delighted that the next generation of phones will have better cameras. Why? Because more megapixels means more megabytes are required to store your digital creations. The incredible amount of content that we are consumers are creating is what is driving the NAS market, predicted to grow at over 20% a year.

Richard pointed out though that it is not just the ability to capture content that is driving the desire for storage. It is the ability to share it; the availability of bandwidth needed to stream new photos and videos back to a central storage hub, access them across a variety of devices and share them with friends and family. We now have cameras with us all the time, and these cameras can — and do — instantly stream the images we capture off to our personal clouds.

And here is where it gets tricky…

Backhaul Woes

Every time a new generation of mobile network comes along, everyone gets very excited about the speed of the connection between the phone and the mast. 2.5G, 3G, 4G — the conversation is always the same. Likewise with the advent of new home broadband services: you always hear about how many megabits per second your cable or DSL line will deliver from the exchange to your home.

What you never hear about is the link between the exchange and the rest of the world — what is known as ‘backhaul’. This is where it all starts to fall down.

In February this year, Tellabs — an old client of mine — sponsored some research that identified a $9.2bninvestment gap in backhaul networks. Based on a five to six times increase in the volume of data carried over mobile networks, at current investment levels, operators will be 16 petabytes short of capacity.

That’s quite a lot. Despite Tellabs clear interest in there being an investment gap (the company provides — surprise surprise — backhaul network gear), I don’t have trouble believing these figures. If anything they feel intuitively a little conservative: we know that there are bottlenecks in the UK’s mobile networks today, and data consumption is increasing incredibly fast.

Crunch, Crunch, Crunch

When demand for data outstrips supply capacity like this it has become known in the telecoms industry as a capacity crunch. Backhaul looks likely to be the latest in a series of crunches that have happened at different points throughout the communications networks over the years. There will be more: there are already rumours about a coming crunch in fixed-line (i.e. your home and business broadband) networks in the near future.

It’s not surprising that networks don’t scale evenly to meet demand. Nor that there’s sometimes a lag between demand and the supply to meet it. This is the nature of the market, particularly in an industry where demand is scaling so rapidly.

The alternative is to build based on forecast capacity. But we’ve been through that before too: it happened across the world during the dotcom boom. One client of mine bought and built itself a global network on the basis of forecasts of demand for internet services. At its height in 2000 the company was valued at $37billion. By the end of the following year it had been through Chapter 11, a form of voluntary bankruptcy, and acquired by Cable & Wireless for just $800m.

The company was called Exodus Communications. No-one wants to risk being the next Exodus.

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The Future’s Bright. The Future’s… Pink? What the Ascend P6 Says About the Future of Phones

Chinese super-company Huawei just launched a new phone* at a big flashy event at London’s roundhouse. The Ascend P6 is available in black, white…and pink. It even has a pink and flowery user interface theme to go with the more ‘soft, feminine’ version (I think that’s how the chief executive described it).

One of the features of this phone is a ‘beauty level’ adjuster, which combined with the 5MP front facing camera makes it perfect for ‘selfies’. I’ve dubbed it the Rihanna phone as a result.

The P6 is a very capable-looking, very clever phone. One of the weekly marvels of engineering that seem to be released into our reach. But it’s what it says about our world that I find more interesting. Because while Huawei’s interpretation of the market may be a little more blunt than some brands would dare to attempt, I have little doubt about the appeal of its pink, beauty-enhancing phone to some sections of the market. There is a market, amongst women, for technology that helps them conform to some bizarre, market-made archetype of femininity.

What does this tell us about the future?

1. Technology is Not Gender Neutral

Of all the colours in the rainbow, this smart global company chose to make their only accented phone in pink. This is not a decision that will be based on chauvinistic assumptions. This will be based on solid market research. Consumers want a pink phone. The pink marketing brigade has succeeded in gendering not just toys and clothes but technological tools.

2. Personal Technology Is Fashion

This incredibly high-tech phone that crams its capabilities into a shell just 6.18mm thick — making it the thinnest phone on the market — is being released at EU449. That sounds like a lot but it is EU150 cheaper than you would expect a flagship phone to be. It’s low enough that it is likely to be available free on contracts as low as £21 a month. At the end of that 18 month or two year contract it will be disposable.

What differentiates this phone from other high-end phones? A few headline features (above) but fundamentally it’s about looks. Style. Every top phone will allow you to do the same things, just like every decent coat will keep you warm/dry. What differentiates them is your choice of style and brand.

Low-cost, disposable products that are selected based on looks? How is personal technology now anything but fashion? I firmly believe clothes stores are the natural home for the phone and accessory sales of the future.

3. Smart Makeup is Here

We’re all used to celebrity images being airbrushed before they ever see the light of day. Now we can airbrush our own pictures instantly. It won’t be long before many of us are viewing the world through an augmented reality lens. Why not add smart makeup in real time?

Your skin, hair, clothes and everything else could be post-processed to present an altered image of you to others. Sure it will all disappear when they take off their glasses, but at least you could choose who sees what image of you. No more mullets: you could display short hair to your work colleagues and long hair to the rest of the world.

This is a lot to extrapolate from a single product launch. But this was just the latest piece of evidence for the direction of trends in personal tech: only the smart makeup piece is a new suggestion from me and that has been a feature of science fiction for years. What I think this launch shows is how embedded the precursors to that technology are becoming in our society, opening our minds to a future shift.

*Like lots of other people I’m dropping the ‘smart’ from the ‘phone’. There are dumb phones still but in this market they are very much the exception.

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The Future of Management: No More Employees

In my second post for the Institute of Leadership and Management’s Inspire Magazine I have written about the end of the job as we know it. I’m a strong believer that the nature of employment is going to change significantly in the next twenty years with full time employment becoming the exception rather than the rule. Instead more and more of us will be contracted on a freelance basis, project by project, with every one of us becoming our own little companies. Read the full post here: https://www.i-l-m.com/Insight/Inspire/2013/June/Future_blog_02

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What We Do: Applied Futurism

Book of the Future has been a business with a long gestation period. For the first seven years or so it was just a blog: something that sat alongside my ‘real’ work. I’m not sure I ever considered it might be a business in its own right.

In the six months since it became my full time job it has evolved dramatically as I have tried to develop a scalable, sustainable business model. That model is now firming up into a distinct set of products and processes and a better defined approach to the tricky business of futurism.

This post is my first attempt to document it all in one place before I go and write/rewrite elements of the website to make it all coherent. So if you’re interested in how a futurist gets paid, how Book of the Future differentiates, and how I plan to scale this business from just me to the ambitious ‘we’ of the title, read on.

The Futurist’s Conundrum

There’s a reason your school careers advisor didn’t suggest gambling as a profession. Think about a horse race. You have a limited number of options as to who can win. You have loads of evidence about the relative capabilities of each horse. And you even have professional bookmakers giving you odds on which one will be fastest over the course.

And yet, even with these limited variables, it is impossible to predict the outcome with sufficient clarity to make a regular living.

Now think about predicting the future in the wider sense. Consider the vast array of variables and actors. Predicting the future is like betting on a horse race with 8 billion participants and no defined course, let alone a start or finish line.

It’s no wonder the track record of those that try to forecast the future is pretty poor.

But it is infinitely better than the success rate of those that don’t even try.

Because the futurist’s conundrum is this: if you don’t at least try to predict the future, you are guaranteed to fail. Call it good planning or call it futurism, few would disagree that one of the most important characteristics of any good, sustainable business is the ability to anticipate change and be ready to deal with it.

Applied Futurism

So with the conundrum in mind, what’s the solution? I call it Applied Futurism*.

The reality is that there’s lots of ‘futurism’ out there because everyone likes to make predictions, be they industry analysts, investors, journalists, product manufacturers, service providers — whatever. Every person on this planet is making predictions about the future, every day, some with more rigour than others.

The first stage of Applied Futurism is collating and absorbing as many relevant sources as we feasibly can around a specific topic.

Stage two is about pattern recognition: how do all of these disparate evidence sources come together. Can we pull all the strands together into recognisable trends?

Stage three is about presentation: can we distil all of the identified trends and data we have collected down into a consumable package. Whether it be seminar, workshop, blog post or eBook we try to restrict it to five key trends.

So far we have applied this methodology — successfully — to presentations and eBooks on subjects from education to transport, and from retail to management.

Futurism and Forecasting

Trying to make accurate predictions of the future is fun, and we will continue to do it for that reason. But I don’t believe in determinism. As Sarah Connor said, “The future’s not set.” The point of this practice is to help organisations and individuals understand how the world is changing today, and respond to those changes. Rather than predicting the future, we want to help you shape it.

So that’s what Book of the Future is about. Applied Futurism means taking the evidence at hand, distilling it into a consumable form, then working with you to help you respond. It’s about educating, informing and inspiring. And we’ll do it through publishing, broadcasting, public speaking, consulting and more.

To date clients have included the BBC, Sony Pictures, Mediacom North, The Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Institute of Leadership and Management, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce and Daisy Telecom.

We’re on the lookout for new clients. Could we liven up your conference or event? Get your staff primed for innovation? Create a new source of engaging content for your campaigns? Then give us a call.

*Kudos goes to Stewart Aitken for coming up with the term ‘Applied Futurism’, as well as creating a brilliant brand that I abuse daily.

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Not Being Evil: Defending Google

Margaret Hodge is wonderful. The way she has turned the public accounts committee into the most effective campaign group in British politics today is deeply impressive. And most of the time, I agree with her. This time though, I share her ire but not its subject.

Google is a company operating in a well defined capitalist system of shareholders and markets. Its primary responsibility is to those shareholders and markets. I’m not saying that’s right or that I agree with the system. But that is the framework within which Google and all other companies operate.

The UK and international tax system currently does not oblige Google to pay more than the £10m tax it does on its estimated £11bn revenues in the UK. If it did, the company would: it’s not like it would walk away from a profitable business.

But until the law says that is the case, it’s very hard to see how Google can pay more tax. Imagine the script for the chief exec at an investor meeting:

“Next on the agenda, I’d like to give £100m of our profits to the UK taxpayer.”

“Why — have we not met our obligations?”

“No. It’s just that they think morally we ought to pay more.”

No investor — individual, pension fund manager, venture capitalist — is going to give up their return on investment. Because when someone has invested their money with you to manage, your moral — and legal — imperative is to look after it and maximise returns. Certainly I would be disappointed if the person managing my pension went around handing my money out to people who argued they had a moral case, because that is the money I hope to live on in old age. I think I have a pretty strong moral case to see my investment grow. If any CEO did this the investors would immediately and understandably be concerned about who was shepherding their investments.

Should Google pay more tax? Yes — by some orders of magnitude. But the law needs to compel it to do so. The UK and international tax codes are impossibly complex, riddled with loopholes and desperately in need of reform. Not just so that we can make Google and the rest pay their fair share of tax. But so that it is easier and cheaper for small businesses to open and operate.

This is where Margaret Hodge and the PAC should be directing their ire and efforts.

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Why Electronics Stores Are as Dead as the DVD

If you sell electronics on the high street, stop. It’s over.

Tesco is pulling out of consumer electronics because the margins don’t justify the shelf space. Do you have Tesco’s buying power? Thought not.

The reality is that the price of consumer electronics is now so low that the costs of high street rents and high street staff make selling them face to face — profitably — near impossible. You can eke out a business with scale (DSG — benefiting from the death of all its main high street competitors) or with clever buying (independents importing no-name brands direct from China). But other than that the action is online. This situation is only going to worsen as the older consumers who want their hand holding die out and are replaced with younger, more savvy buyers.

So what do you do with your retail space? That lease you can’t get out of?

Two ideas:

1. Become a Tech Fashion Retailer

What business dominates the high street selling low value goods in high volumes on a fairly thin margin? Fashion. Technology is becoming so cheap and so disposable that it resembles nothing more closely than fashion.

The next few years will see the lines between the two begin to blur as falling costs and new materials science see clothes becoming increasingly connected. Expect displays, speakers, solar cells and other forms of generating technology first. Alongside a variety of smart sensors for motion, temperature, air pressure and more.

Create a goto brand for integrated fashions and with the right timing you could have an international business on your hands.

2. Become a Showroom

I want to buy a gadget today. What do I do? I go to the high street. I play with everything. I use your salesman’s valuable time. Then I buy it online to save 10%. Consumers are fickle like that. Most of the time.

There are two responses to this.

One is the Apple response. You make the brand so attractive and the in-store experience so good, that people will pay the extra 10%. It works for them, but an experience like that requires a brand like Apple’s. And that takes years and billions to create. Out of the reach of most retailers.

Most brands can’t afford to do what Apple does. But the smart ones know that their online sales will suffer if people can’t at least see their goods offline. So they will pay you to showcase their products in a compelling fashion, on the high street or in the retail park, knowing full well that you may not be the person who ultimately makes the sale.

How this will be funded will vary. Some will pay you a simple co-marketing fund. Some will give you greatly enhanced revenue share for providing a premium customer experience. Others might implement some form of customer tracking to reward you for conversions.

Whatever route you choose, good luck. You’re going to need it.

Tom Cheesewright